Mahler's Seventh Symphony was written in 1904-05, with repeated revisions to the scoring. It is sometimes referred to by the title Song of the Night (German: Lied der Nacht), though this title was not Mahler's own and he disapproved of it.
In 1904, Mahler was enjoying great international success as a conductor, but he was also, at last, beginning to enjoy international success as a composer. His second daughter was born that June, and during his customary summer break away from Vienna in his lakeside retreat at Maiernigg in the Carinthian Mountains, he finished the Sixth Symphony and sketched the second and fourth movements (the two Nachtmusik movements) for the Seventh Symphony while mapping out much of the rest of the work. He then worked on the Seventh intensively the following summer, claiming to take just four weeks to complete the first, third and fifth movements.
The completed score was dated 15 August 1905, and the orchestration was finished in 1906; he laid the Seventh aside to make small changes to the orchestration of the Sixth, while rehearsing for its premiere in May 1906. The Seventh had its premiere on 19 September 1908, in Prague, at the festival marking the Diamond Jubilee of Emperor Franz Joseph.
The first movement is in sonata form; it begins with a slow introduction, launched by a dark melody played by a baritone horn. The accompanimental rhythm was said to have come to Mahler whilst rowing on the lake at Maiernigg after a period of compositional drought. Bitter and anguished cries emerge from various members of the woodwind and brass families and lead to a passionate climax. The pace quickens and the music launches into a strangely confused dance—part Viennese waltz, part grotesque stomp, and part militaristic march which yields to a lyrical theme introduced by a pair of horns. The swaying and swooping of the violins in this section was inspired by the wildlife and scenery of the Carinthian Mountains in summer. An abrupt return to the double basses heralds an inexorable build-up of passion which only finds its final resolution in the brisk and robust, but curiously bitter-sweet march with which the movement ends. The second movement opens with horns calling to each other across the mountain valleys in the gathering dusk. The first of the two "Nachtmusik" ("Night Music") movements, this is said to represent a "walk by night", and could represent a musical recreation of Rembrandt's Night Watch, which impressed Mahler.
There is an undercurrent of night about the spooky third movement; while Scherzo means 'joke', this movement is remarkably gloomy and even grim; eerie timpani and low wind instruments set off on a threatening waltz, complete with unearthly woodwind shrieks and ghostly shimmerings from the basses. The fourth movement (the second "Nachtmusik"), with its "amorous" marking and reduced instrumentation—trombones, tuba and trumpets are silent and woodwinds reduced by half—has been described as "a long stretch of chamber music set amidst this huge orchestral work". A solo violin introduces the movement, while a horn solo above the gentle tones of a guitar and mandolin create a magical serenade character. Boisterous timpani, joined in the fray by blazing brass, set the scene for the riotous fifth movement. Here is quasi-film music, pomp and pageantry and great dramatic gestures all rolled into a piece that demands intense orchestral display. Formally, the movement is a rondo that acts as the theme for a set of eight variations, capped off by a dramatic coda. There are parodies of Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Franz Lehár's The Merry Widow, as well as of Mahler's own Fifth Symphony and the famous Lutheran Hymn "Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott", not to mention other ironic and sarcastic references.
Conductor: Leonard Bernstein & New York Philharmonic Orchestra.